London Bridge is falling down

I heard the other day that the nursery rhyme refers to the time one of the daughters of one of the Lords of Bath, Isabella Thin, IIRC, danced naked on London Bridge, and so many people crowed around to watch, the bridge collapsed. Any truth to this?


In 1962, London Bridge was falling down. Built in 1831, the bridge couldn’t handle the ever-increasing flow of traffic across the Thames. The British government decided to put the bridge up for sale, and Robert McCulloch, Founder of Lake Havasu City, Arizona, and Chairman of McCulloch Oil Corporation, submitted the winning bid of $2,460,000.
The bridge was dismantled, and each stone was carefully marked. Everything was shipped 10,000 miles to Long Beach, California, and then trucked to Lake Havasu City. Reconstruction began on September 23, 1968, with a ceremony including the Lord Mayor of London, who laid the cornerstone. On October 10, 1971, the bridge was dedicated.

There were several different incarnations of London Bridge prior to the more stable construction mentioned by Sue Duhnym – each a little more precarious than its successor. Because the bridge was seen as a great shop front and because those older ones were built of wood, there were many occasions when the bloody thing might have been considered a shade wobbly. Anyways…

Nothing at home that address’s this, Dave (how ya doin, BTW ?) and at least a couple of idea’s for the origin of the rhyme via online searches – there may be more as I don’t think there is one definitively clear answer:

This seems a little fanciful to my mind. The concluding paragraph says:
In 1013…(that’s a year, not the time) …<big snip, ouch!..>

“Although he has confused the chronology, Snorri writes that Æthelred
was supported in this attempt by Olaf Haraldsson. There was a bridge over
the Thames, “so broad that two waggons could pass each other upon
it,” with forts on either side of the river. Unable to dislodge the
Danes from their fortifications, Æthelred sought to gain possesion
of the bridge, itself. Olaf and his men roofed over their ships, rowed
up to the bridge, and, under a barrage of stones and missiles, “laid
their cables around the piles which supported it, and then rowed off with
all the ships as hard as they could down the stream.” The pilings
were loosened and, with the weight of the defenders on the bridge,
it gave way. The fort at Southwark across the river was stormed and taken, and those in the tower on the other side, aware that the river no longer
could be blockaded, surrendered. Æthelred, writes Snorri, was proclaimed

But then this link to Encyclopaedia Britannica suggests the rhyme might not be related to an actual event but is rather a children’s game that originated on mainland Europe before coming to England in the 17th century. Quite when and how the actual words were put together needs a little more research.
I think the latter sounds more reasonable – events of the 11th century are chronicled but I don’t think there’s a precedent (unless this is it!) for something like a rhyme to survive that long.

There are probably other, perhaps more scholarly, rationale’s… .it’s a start…

Weinreb and Hibbert in their entry on London Bridge in *The London Encyclopaedia * endorse the Ethelred theory. They claim that the original version is that by the Norse poet, Ottar Svarte, which records the event. The poem apparently translates as,

London bridge is broken down
Gold is won and bright renown.
Shields resounding
War horns sounding
Hildur shouting in the din
Arrows singing
Mailcoats ringing
Odin makes our Olaf win.

This seems unconvincing. I suspect that what we have here is a poem which just happens to describe the destruction of one London Bridge and which is unrelated to the more familiar rhyme. Weinreb and Hibbert note that the latter version first appears in the seventeenth century, which sounds plausible.

I’m no more convinced by the Isabella Thynne theory. If it was true, it would have to refer to the pre-1831 bridge and yet that bridge is known to have survived without falling down from its construction in 1176 until its demolition in the nineteenth century. A search for ‘Isabella Thynne’ throws up various references to members of the right family with that name but none obviously connected with either London Bridge or public displays of nudity.

I heard that you American’s thought you were buying Tower Bridge, and got our rubbishy brick bridge.


Don’t be an arse, FA.

Ok, I looked a little more. It seems that none of the stone built bridges were ever likely to take a tumble so that takes us back to before 1209 (the first stone bridge was begun in 1176 and took 33 years to finish) - assuming the rhyme was based on an actual event.

The wooden bridge (we know of) was built in 1013 and washed away in floods in 1090. Perhaps there was another wooden bridge built between 1090 and 1209 that I’m not aware of but I don’t think that’s the case.

Prior to that, I’m only aware of the Roman bridge – presumably the first bridge – and for which we have no date (I’d guess a little before year zero) although it stood approximately 100 yards to the east of the current incumbent. Unlikely that we’d be rhyming in modern English about a Roman bridge.

Nope, I’m still siding with the notion that it’s a (European) imported children’s game that just happened to choose London Bridge as its theme (could have been Stonehenge, St Paul’s, etc. but wasn’t).

However, I wondering whether this question is really about naked dancing nymphs ?? If that’s the case, your interest in not without merit. Apparently, Lady Isabella was something of a sweetie. This about the very same lady by Edmund Waller:

Such moving sounds, from such a careless touch!
So un-concern’d her self, and we so much!
What art is this, that with so little pains
Transports us thus, and o’er our spirits reigns?
The trembling strings about her fingers crowd,
And tell their joy for ev’ry kiss aloud:
Small force there needs to make them tremble so:
Touched by that hand, who would not tremble too?
Here LOVE takes stand, and while she charms the ear,
Empties his quiver on the list’ning deer:
Music so softens, and disarms, the mind,
That not an arrow does resistance find.
Thus the fair tyrant celebrates the prize,
And acts herself the triumph of her eyes:
So NERO once, with harp in hand, survey’d
His flaming ROME, and as it burn’d he play’d.

But she was a mid-17th century chick so the bridge was stone built. However, that doesn’t preclude one from casting an imaginary eye over those fine buttresses.

Civil Engineer here. The bridge in the olden days had shops and kisks on either side of the road. This was a focal point for passage in the area. These shops grew over the years, and shabby construction caused buildings to collapse on a regular basis. No cite, but studied Bridges, Train Stations and Cathedrals at University College London a while back.